Characters/Pairings: Arthur/Gwen, background Merlin/Gwaine
Word Count: 13,800
Summary: Modern AU. Rich and famous Arthur Pendragon is looking for a marriage of convenience to distract his father from controlling his life so much, but the last thing he expects is for his best friend Merlin to introduce him to a girl who has no idea who he is.
Notes: Written for this stunning artwork by neptune47 for the merlinreversebb. Very special thanks to cruentum for reading it over and keeping me honest.
Arthur stared at the girl in disbelief. “You honestly have no idea who I am?”
Though her intelligent brown eyes remained unwavering, the tightening at the corners of her mouth had to mean she wasn’t as impervious to his presence as her introduction made it seem. “Should I?”
Yes, she bloody well should. Most of London knew who he was. When the rags weren’t chasing down his father, they camped at the Starbucks across from Arthur’s flat, waiting for him to come out of the building so they could get a snap. He had half the female population in the city wondering who he’d be seen with next. The Pendragon dynasty was a force of its own to be reckoned with, not a fly-by-night operation that would disappear with the next flux in the market.
He’d wanted someone who wouldn’t be fazed by his wealth and power, but he’d never expected Merlin to bring around a girl who must live in a cave.
He shifted to scowl at the friend in question. “What’s this about?” he demanded. “You’ve got to be joking.”
Merlin smirked. “Not in the slightest.”
“Is she daft, then? Is that it?”
Indignance curled through her voice, goading him to turn back to her. Twin spots of color had appeared high on her cheeks, highlighting the freckles that smattered across her tawny skin. With her black curls pulled back into a loose tail, tendrils fluttering down the side of her neck where she couldn’t even bother to tuck them away properly, she looked more like the girl who served him coffee every morning than a potential wife. She wasn’t even wearing any make-up.
“I’ll have you know I graduated from Sheffield with top marks in mechanical engineering,” she went on. “If I don’t know who you are, perhaps it’s because I’ve spent the last year working in France, and the year before that in Bruges. Or perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I’d rather get a root canal than scramble down to the agent’s for the latest OK!. But you know, something tells me we wouldn’t have traveled in the same circles regardless. The people I know understand what manners are.” Turning on her heel, she flipped a final glance at Merlin before storming off. “Thanks, anyway, Merlin. I appreciate the effort.”
Arthur scowled at her stiff back as she strode through the park. “I have man—ow!” He rubbed at the spot on his arm where Merlin had just hit him. “What was that for?”
“Because you’re an idiot. Gwen’s your best chance at getting Uther off your back.”
Gwen. That was her name. He’d been too dumbstruck by the fact she hadn’t recognized him straight away to hear the introduction. “She’s more likely to kill me in my sleep before he ever said a word.”
“No, she’d more likely gag you to keep you quiet for the whole year,” Merlin replied with a grin.
“You can’t seriously believe I could marry her.”
“You’re the one who wants your father to stop harassing you about grandchildren and the Pendragon legacy.” Merlin shrugged. “I was just doing what you asked me to do.”
True enough, but he couldn’t fathom how Merlin could ever conceive this Gwen would be appropriate. “Did you tell her what this was all about?” he asked, suddenly suspicious of his friend’s motives. It wouldn’t be unlike Merlin at all to try and play matchmaker. He’d done it often enough over the years, always with spectacularly awful results. Understanding women was not one of Arthur’s fortes.
“Yes, though I didn’t go into specifics about why.”
“And what does she get out of it if she doesn’t even know who I am?” He could see a girl agreeing to this arrangement—a marriage of convenience, a clean divorce in a year when he came into full control of the trust his mother had left for him and he could finally stop kowtowing to every small demand Uther made of him—for the prestige of being his ex-wife, perhaps, but not for much else. Frankly, he’d not given much hope to the idea finding its feet at all.
“Her father’s in a bit of a mess at the moment,” Merlin explained.
Arthur’s brows shot up. “Marrying me is only going to send every reporter in the city digging into her past.”
“Which is exactly what she wants.” With a sigh, he came to Arthur’s side, so they could both watch Gwen waiting on the corner to cross the street. “Look, why can’t you trust me on this? Gwen’s great. She’s smart, and she’s loyal—”
“And you’ve just described my stepmother’s dog.”
Merlin rolled his eyes. “I would’ve thought you’d want someone who won’t be afraid to stand up to Uther. She’d be on your side, no matter what, Arthur. You’ve just got to get her there first.”
A feat worthy of an Olympian if their initial introduction was anything to go by. Still, he trusted Merlin more than anyone. When they’d met at uni, Merlin had called him on his somewhat old-fashioned perspectives. He’d never been impressed by Arthur’s status or money. That had put him in a different camp almost from the start.
Now that he thought about it, Gwen’s reaction was much like Merlin’s had been. And at the end of the day, her ignorance of his lifestyle could work in their favor.
“I suppose I could talk to her a bit more,” he mused. “Charm her into forgetting what I said.” When Merlin snorted, he set his jaw and began walking determinedly toward her. “Are you coming with me or not?”
Merlin jogged to catch up. He still wore that infernal grin when he matched Arthur’s pace. “Well, someone’s got to make sure you don’t muck this up even worse than you already have.”
“If you’d warned me—”
“I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of seeing that look on your face.”
He gaped at Merlin. “What look?”
The smile widened. “That one.”
Gwen wasn’t normally a nervous sort, but something about this Arthur Pendragon left her on edge. Her booted heel jiggled against the leg of her chair, as incapable of settling as the nerves beneath her skin. He’s a jerk. Which he was, but the argument was weak, even to her. She worked with jerks all the time. It was one of the realities of being female in a male-dominated industry. Before today, she would’ve called herself an expert on how to deal with them without getting her feathers ruffled. Ruffle-free, that was Gwen. Go with the flow, do what was necessary, and get out without getting tangled up in drama.
Just from the few minutes she’d spent with Arthur in the park, she got the feeling his whole life was drama. What was she getting herself into? Between his Hollywood looks and his total self-absorption, she had no idea how to deal with him. Or why she was bothering. Or at this moment, why she’d told Merlin she’d consider the arrangement in the first place.
He stood with Arthur at the counter, paying for the coffees they’d insisted on ordering, chatting like everything was normal, like they hadn’t just accosted her on the corner and begged for five more minutes. Every time the door opened, her brain went into overdrive calculating how long it would take her to bolt and get away scot-free this time. Was it really worth listening to Arthur plead his case? She could always track down Elyan to see if he could contribute financially to pay for their father’s solicitor. But the odds of finding him in time were slim to none, and Tom’s clock was winding down.
That was why she still sat at the corner table they’d picked out when they joined her with three cappuccinos. Because Arthur Pendragon was probably her last real hope to clear her father’s name.
“Extra cream, just the way you like it,” Merlin announced, sliding the steaming mug in front of her.
Arthur sprawled in his seat. “I’m not even sure why you bothered with coffee.”
At the same time Gwen frowned at him, the table jostled. Arthur snapped up straight and shot Merlin a dirty look.
“You wanted to talk,” she said. “So talk.”
“Talk. Right.” Clearing his throat, he held out his hand. “Let’s start with a proper introduction, shall we? Arthur Pendragon.”
She tamped down the obvious retort, then mentally scolded herself for having the urge to do it in the first place. Ruffle-free. Remember that. For Dad’s sake. She took a deep breath. “Gwen DeGrance.”
His hand was dry and strong, the fingers slightly callused where they ran along the side of her palm. Pure business, so why didn’t it actually make her feel any better?
Then, he smiled. And every recrimination about what she was doing tripped over itself and came to a shuddering halt. He changed completely when he smiled, more youthful, carefree, less with the stick up the bum and more of the wanna share my secret. Far more accessible. No wonder the paps were so interested in him. He was a front page wet dream.
“So how do you know Merlin?” he asked.
It was to be polite conversation then, a far cry from his abrupt manner in the park. She could do that. It would’ve been easier if he was a troll, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.
“We grew up together,” she said. “His mum worked with my dad for a few years, and since my brother wasn’t exactly the reliable sort, Merlin and I took to watching over each other. At least, until he went off to college and uni. Since then, it’s been mostly Christmas cards and the occasional text to make sure the other’s still alive.”
“And none of Merlin’s antics brought you racing back to save him?”
“Hey,” Merlin interjected with a grin. “If memory serves, most of my so-called antics were a direct result of trying to save your ass.”
She might not care for Arthur, but she did like the easy camaraderie that ebbed between the two men. Merlin got along with just about everybody—always had—but few were worth trusting like this. Point for Pendragon.
Picking up her coffee, she cradled it between her hands, the heat bleeding into her cold palms. She couldn’t resist asking, “So is your ass often in need of saving?”
“Not as often as Merlin would have you think,” came the quick reply. “Though in this instance…” He gestured between himself and Gwen. “…he’s not that far off the mark.”
“Your need for a wife.”
“My need to get my father off my back for the next eleven months,” he clarified. “The wife plan just seems like the most expedient way of doing it.”
Gwen didn’t get it. She hadn’t really understood too much when Merlin explained it to her, except for the part where being married to Arthur would get her enough attention to clear her father’s name. “So explain to me why you have your best friend looking for suitable candidates when, according to you, half of London would be more than happy to take my place.”
Arthur sighed and grimaced. “That really did come out wrong back there, didn’t it?”
“Yes, it really did.”
“You surprised me, that’s all.”
“Because I didn’t scrape and bow at your ever so perfect feet?”
“They’re not so perfect,” Merlin offered.
“Because you’re different,” Arthur went on, as if Merlin hadn’t added his commentary at all. “You’re not like the women I normally meet.”
“Isn’t that what you wanted?” she countered. “Somebody uninvested, Merlin said. Someone who’d treat this like a transaction and nothing more. I would’ve thought different would be good.”
“It is.” His vehement response was swift, testimony to its honesty. “But frankly, I never thought I’d find anyone remotely suitable.”
At the rate he was going, she suspected he never would. It was probably a very good thing he was moderately well-known and attractive. Women could overlook the bumbling lack of charm.
“How do you define suitable?” If he managed to get his other foot into his mouth to join the first, she was leaving. She’d find another way to help Tom.
“I need to marry someone who can’t be manipulated by my father.” He toyed with the plastic stirrer, brandishing it like a tiny sword. “But someone who would be willing to play the part of devoted wife, just well enough to string him along for the next eleven months.”
“Why eleven months?”
“That’s when I turn twenty-five and get full control of the trust my mother left me.”
She should’ve known. “So this is about money.” Disappointment deflated her anxious nerves. For all his antagonistic ways, she’d held onto the hope that he had more beneath the surface. He was friends with Merlin, after all, and Merlin normally had better taste in friends.
“No,” he countered. “It’s about control. As much as I love my father, he refuses to see that I’m not Uther Junior. If I don’t have to rely on his resources, he can’t treat me like one of his puppets anymore.”
“And you really think, of all the women you already know, there’s not one your father could use against you?”
He shrugged. “I’m not willing to take the risk. This is my life, too. It would be nice to be able to trust my wife implicitly.”
His eyes were downcast as he stated the last, his thoughts clearly wandering elsewhere than this overheated cafe in this overpriced London neighborhood. It wasn’t said to sway or coax, but more as a simple fact, a quiet longing pervading what seemed to be the perfect life if his expensive shoes and high expectations were anything to gauge by.
In that second, she dismissed his piss-poor attitude and less than gracious manners. She understood this kind of desperation, how an attack on a person’s pride that came from forces beyond their control could drive them to consider the extreme. Merlin’s request to hear him out finally made sense. “I’m in,” she said softly.
When her announcement shocked him into staring at her again, she almost chuckled. He really was easy to surprise.
“Just like that?” he said, incredulous.
“Just like that.”
“What about your terms?”
She shook her head. “I don’t have any.”
That jerked him back to the moment. His eyes narrowed. “Everybody has terms. What do you get out of this arrangement otherwise?”
In for a penny, in for a pound. She’d made the decision to trust him. She needed to commit to it wholeheartedly to make this work.
“Has Merlin told you about my situation?” A shake of his head. “My father has been charged with involvement in certain crimes, and the only solicitor I can afford doesn’t have enough clout to expose the men who are really responsible. I’ve tried getting media coverage for it, but nothing’s worked so far. He’s just not important or interesting enough to hit the papers, or blogs, or anything.”
“You want me to pay for a better solicitor?”
“It’s not about money.” She hoped throwing his words back in his face would prove they could be on the same side. “It’s about exposure. If I get involved with someone who is already in the public eye, they’ll go digging into my past without any effort from me at all. And if they do that, my father will finally get the chance to tell what really happened.”
“You want all your dirty laundry to end up on page one of the Sun?” Leaning forward, he was suddenly in her face, his scent filling her head, his blue eyes all she could see. “They’re ruthless, you know. Nothing is sacred. They will talk to your friends and everybody who’s ever even seen you in hopes of getting a juicy story. And if they can’t convince them to spill, they’ll pay them to. And trust me, somebody will sell. Somebody always sells.”
She’d thought about that. Especially when Merlin came to her in the first place. He’d been honest about the attention it would garner. Did she have a completely clear conscience? No, but nobody really did, did they? People made mistakes. The difference between her and the woman Arthur thought her to be was that Gwen owned the mistakes she’d made in her past. If she couldn’t claim them, what sort of person would she be?
“It would be worth it to have the truth come out,” she said simply.
“And what about your work?” he pressed. “That’ll be affected, too.”
“I’m contracting right now. If there’s fallout I can’t handle, I’ll terminate and go back to France once we’re divorced.”
“It won’t just be the press, you know. My father won’t like this one bit. He won’t make it easy on you, either.”
She lifted her chin. “If you can take it, I can take it.”
His steady regard remained unfailing for nearly a minute. Then, his wide mouth split into a grin. “I just bet you could.”
Gwen forced her gaze to stay on his, away from that smile so determined to take her in. “So do we have a deal?”
He nodded. “Deal.” With the conflict settled between them—at least to his satisfaction—he returned to his comfortable sprawl and picked up his coffee. “We’ll start tomorrow night.”
“What’s to start? The paperwork?”
“Oh, no, I’ve got a private solicitor Father doesn’t know about to handle that. I mean dating. Is seven o’clock good for you?”
He couldn’t be serious. “I didn’t agree to date you.”
Arthur cocked a brow, watching her over the rim of his cup. “But you’ll marry me with barely a blush? No, wait.” His eyes swept down her face, only to return to hers with more than a hint of mirth flickering in their bright depths. “There it is.”
“That’s different.” Damn it, she really was flushed in embarrassment, her cheeks burning. “That’s a business arrangement.”
“One we have to make believable. Which means, since nobody in my father’s circle knows who you are, we have to be seen together first. Hence, a date.” He stopped, his nose wrinkling as he seemed to contemplate something he hadn’t thought of yet. “Well, maybe a few. Enough to sell the love at first sight angle.”
A date. Or a few. With Arthur Pendragon. Her brain refused to wrap around the concept. Her mouth wasn’t helping much either. A marriage of convenience was one thing—she’d been prepared for some shows of public affection to validate the relationship, and it wasn’t like Arthur was a troll—but dating was different. It was…intimate. One on one.
Her gaze flew to Merlin, who just gave her a small, supportive smile. She wouldn’t have him as a back-up for these so-called dates, either.
Without taking his amused gaze off her, Arthur leaned toward Merlin. “Is that like the look you wanted to see on me before?” he said in a mock whisper, obviously intending her to hear every word.
Merlin nodded. “That’s the one.”
“I think I understand the appeal now.”
She didn’t. And for what was likely not going to be the last time, she wondered just what in hell she was getting herself into.
When it came to his dates, Arthur usually went out of his way to create the semblance of privacy, either picking them up in a taxi or meeting someplace else. Nothing about tonight, however, was usual. Not the set-up, not the outcome, and definitely not the girl. Gwen wanted to be seen by the media, so that was what he’d give her. Besides, with how swiftly everything was happening, it was simply easier for Gwen to come to his flat. If the paparazzi missed them leaving together, it at least lengthened the odds that someone somewhere would get a snapshot of them to splash across the Internet. He’d even settle for someone with a crappy camera phone, anything that paired them up and put them in the public eye.
The night itself would be fairly straightforward. Dinner at Medlar in Chelsea, suitably elegant but low-key enough to show her he wasn’t quite the prat she thought he was. Then her choice of either dancing or a club to listen to some music. Merlin was useless in trying to pinpoint what she might actually enjoy. “Just don’t try too hard,” he’d said. “In case you haven’t figured it out yet, she hates all that fakery.” Good enough, but bloody frustrating when he wanted to make a good impression.
As to why he was so desperate to impress her? He couldn’t fathom it out. It was obvious she didn’t really care about him or his issues with Uther. All of this was solely to help her father, the rest of it be damned. But the better they got along, the easier the next eleven months were going to be, especially if Uther reacted poorly. It was entirely possible he’d disinherit Arthur completely for choosing to marry someone he found unsuitable. Considering the endgame, perhaps that wasn’t such an awful option, but it wouldn’t help Gwen’s father much if the spotlight got thrown onto Arthur instead.
No, his best bet was to make this match seem like the real deal. Sell Uther on love at first sight, use Gwen’s obvious intelligence to their advantage, and keep Uther off his game just long enough to get the trust, once and for all.
He glanced at his watch.
Once Gwen actually arrived, anyway.
At six-fifty-nine, a taxi glided to a halt in front of the building. Arthur glanced up and down the street, wondering if anybody was out there to notice. By the time his attention slipped back to the curb, the taxi was pulling away, and a vision in white was turning toward the door.
His eyes widened. If she hadn’t been looking at him straight on, he never would have recognized Gwen. Because for all her no-nonsense appearance at the park the other day, she’d pulled out the stops for their grand debut as a couple.
Black curls cascaded down her back, pulled away from her face by delicate gold and white combs. Tendrils tickled along her bare shoulders and collarbone, exposed to the air as her diaphanous shawl slid down her arms. Her earthiness had been highlighted with meticulous make-up, lips a vivid plum, eyes smoky and deep, but it was the dress—that white embroidered sheath that hugged and outlined curves she’d kept hidden beneath her casual clothes the day before—that transfixed him.
Vaguely, he heard the doorman wish him a good night as he pushed the door open and met her on the step. She ground to a halt, and for the briefest of flashes, uncertainty darkened her face. That vulnerability, so unexpected in light of her otherwise confident demeanor, drove him to close the gap between them, the scent of her delicate perfume invading his senses.
“You look…” He searched for the right word, too stunned to do much more than gape. She was getting too accustomed to witnessing him so agog. No wonder she held such a low opinion of him. The best he could manage, and one not nearly evocative enough was, “…amazing.”
The corner of her full lips tilted, not quite a smile but at least she wasn’t running away from him. “Are they watching?” she murmured.
It took him a solid fifteen seconds of racing thoughts before he connected her they with the paps he’d told her about.
She made a little humming noise in the back of her throat, then suddenly leaned forward, rising on her toes with the same unexpected speed to brush the gentlest of kisses across his mouth. She left tingles in her wake, drawing back just as his lips parted in anticipation of more.
“I hope I’m not overdressed,” she said. “But you said to look my best, and this is the nicest thing I own.”
When she tried to take a step away, his arm shot out to catch around her waist. Her small gasp of surprise shocked him as much as her, but it was worth it for the way she now nestled into his side. “It doesn’t even hold a candle to you, Gwen. No fears.”
Her body went stiff, and the half-smile she’d worn disappeared. Glancing to each side, she had a full-blown frown on when she came back to him. “Can they hear us, too?” she whispered.
“You don’t have to snow me when it’s just us, then.” She kept whispering, though her tone had hardened. “I certainly don’t expect it.”
Her reaction was a cold blast of water. Could he blame her for being so suspicious? They’d got off to a rough start. He still wasn’t completely sure why she’d agreed to help him at all, especially as quickly as she had once they’d sat down for coffee. But this night was supposed to be just business, her appearance a costume for the masquerade his life was about to become. Arthur needed to remember that, or risk losing control of the situation altogether.
“Noted,” he said, then skimmed his mouth along her jaw to her ear. Her hot puffs of breath fanned beneath his collar. “But you really do look lovely tonight. I wouldn’t lie to you about that.”
He heard too late the implication that he’d lie to her about other stuff, but the compliment was already out there, working its magic to relax her once again. She nodded once, which only succeeded in bringing more of her soft skin into contact with his. Summoning every ounce of resolve he had, he turned her toward the street, his arm secure around her waist.
She held her head high, laughing appropriately when he made a joke about local traffic as they waited on the corner for the taxi he’d called for them. Glints emanated from the Starbucks front window, and though his instinct told him to show his back to them, Arthur forced his pose to remain open and unassuming, giving the cameras a great angle on Gwen. She would look stunning in the pics that showed up. At the very least, Uther’s first impression of Arthur’s new girlfriend would be a favorable one.
Once they were safely ensconced the taxi, she tried to pull away. Arthur stopped her with an arm across her shoulders.
“The driver’s watching,” he said as he pretended to nuzzle her neck. When she automatically glanced at the rearview mirrow, Arthur caught her jaw and guided her chin to face him instead. “Trust me. You have to pretend you don’t even know they’re there.”
Her eyes went wide and luminous, making him forget for a moment what he was trying to convince her. “And you live with this everyday?”
“Yes, and now so will you.” His hand blocked her profile from the driver’s view, but he couldn’t resist running his thumb along the full swell of her lower lip. It quivered at the scant contact, and he wondered how she’d react if he was the one to initiate a kiss right now. It wasn’t the right time, though. Business, not pleasure. An important thing to remember. “That’s what you wanted, right?”
“Yeah,” she breathed. “I guess.”
“Having second thoughts?”
“Just…overwhelmed, a bit.”
Arthur smiled and settled back. “Don’t be. I won’t let it get out of hand. I promise.”
The last slipped out before he could think about it, impossible to retract even when he wondered why he’d admitted it in the first place. She wasn’t looking for his protection. She was too used to taking care of everybody else, not being the one getting coddled. But being in the spotlight was something he’d known his whole life, and here he was, throwing Gwen into the deep end of the pool, even if it was at her instigation. She seemed tough enough to take it, but she had yet to be tested. That was tonight. If she hated every second of it, he’d give her an out. Any gentleman would.
He sincerely hoped if it came to that, she didn’t take it.
The rest of the drive was spent in comfortable silence, at least until they pulled up in front of Medlar. Then, the muffled ring of his phone shattered the calm. Gwen glanced at his pocket at the same time he shoved his hand in to cut it off. He thumbed it to vibrate mode. She already thought him a boor. He wouldn’t add to it by taking calls in the middle of a date.
Arthur climbed out first and scanned the area quickly while he waited for her to take his hand and join him on the walk. Nothing seemed obvious, though there’d been at least one stoplight where he was sure he saw a young girl pointing them out to her friends. Gwen’s fingers trembled slightly when he took them in his, and he gave her a comforting squeeze before leading her to the front door.
Walking in relaxed them both. He preferred Medlar’s soft, open decor to the darker, trendier restaurants in town, but he hadn’t anticipated Gwen’s delighted smile as she drank it all in. The floors were hardwood, with green upholstered booths lining the dove gray walls. Crisp white linens set off the square tables, none of which were piled on top of each other to make the most of the restaurant’s footprint like other businesses in the city. He never felt like he had someone looking over his shoulder when he ate here. He hoped Gwen felt the same way.
Every move she made was gracious, from the slightly shy smile she gave him as he pulled out her chair to the attention she paid the sommelier during his discourse. More than one person glanced in their direction, but trooper that she was, she never even flicked an eyelash back at them. Playing her part to the hilt, he realized. But as relieved as he was that it was going well, a small voice in the back of his thoughts wished it wasn’t all make-believe. She might not have been someone he would have noticed on his own, but now that they were here, and now that he’d had the opportunity to get to know her, he wanted this to be a real date.
He tamped that down as her head bowed to look over her menu. Wishes and horses. Something else to remember.
So far, so good.
It had been a long time since Gwen had been on a proper date. Her life of late had been consumed with work and the mess her father was embroiled in, leaving no time at all to tend to herself. She’d even taken to trimming her own hair, mostly because she’d realize out of the blue how long it had been since it’d been cut and really, what a waste of time it was to sit in a chair for an hour with hardly anything to show for it.
But this evening was nothing like she’d envisioned. From the way Arthur had talked, she’d imagined flash bulbs going off in their faces, having to hold her hand up to pretend she didn’t want to be photographed, angry words exchanged as he told the people to back off. Instead, with the exception of the driver checking them out in the rearview mirror, she hadn’t seen a soul. Arthur had been complimentary and pleasant, and the restaurant he’d chosen was simple but sophisticated. She could almost forget none of it was real, especially when she caught Arthur stealing glances at her throughout the meal.
“Did you want dessert?” he asked as the waiter took away their empty entree plates.
Her stomach protested just at the mention of more food. “Oh, no. I couldn’t.”
“Not even to take home?”
Tempting, but she would have memories galore to relive this night already. “I’m sure.”
Arthur shrugged and accepted her choice good-naturedly. He begged off on dessert for himself, too, even though she caught the way he kept looking at an elderly woman’s creme brulee at a nearby table. Surprises from him left and right. Not all men would be as considerate or unselfish.
“So, I was thinking…” His voice trailed off as his gaze strayed beyond her shoulder. When his jaw hardened, she turned to see an attractive dark-haired man sauntering toward them, a boyish smile twisting his mouth.
“Well, there you are,” the stranger said as he came to a stop at their table. Grabbing an adjacent chair, he turned it around and straddled it to sit between them. “Looks like I’m just in time for dessert. Lucky me.”
“We’re not ordering afters,” Arthur ground out. “In fact, we were just about to leave.”
The man pulled a pout that was too sexy for its own good. “Pity. The sweets just melt in your mouth.” His focus shifted to Gwen, and the smile returned. “Though with the lovely Gwen for company, I daresay that’s enough for any man.”
Her cheeks colored, more out of embarrassment than a response to his blatant flirting. “I’m sorry, but have we met?” He knew her name. Had Arthur talked about their arrangement with someone other than Merlin?
“Not officially. I’m Gwaine.”
“Oh!” They hadn’t actually met face-to-face, but she’d certainly heard of him numerous times. He and Merlin had been dating off and on for years. This was one of their on periods. Now she understood why Merlin kept going back to him. “Is Merlin with you?”
“Unfortunately, no.” He leaned forward and winked at her. “Merlin likes it a little more down and dirty than this.”
As she laughed—because his innuendo was much more fun when it wasn’t directed at her—Arthur’s frown deepened. “Then why are you here, Gwaine?”
“Because someone doesn’t like to answer his texts. Two someones, actually, but since I’ve only just had the pleasure of meeting Gwen, we shan’t blame her for the miscommunications, shall we?”
Arthur fumbled in his pocket. After the one time his phone had rung in the car, he’d ignored it, even when she could tell from the way his conversation might stutter or how he’d shift in his chair that it had gone off again. He frowned at it now, thumb sweeping swiftly across its screen.
“What is it?” Gwen asked. “Do you need to go?”
“No, nothing like that,” he said, distracted by his reading.
“But he’s probably on his way,” Gwaine said.
Arthur paused, absorbed by one of the texts he’d received. “Good.”
She wasn’t getting any kind of answers from Arthur, so she directed her next question at the more amiable Gwaine. “Who’s on his way?”
His shrug, as well as the look in his eye, was pure apology. “Uther.”
Her head swiveled back to Arthur. “And that’s a good thing? How did he find out about us so soon?”
“Apparently you made the hit list already.” He turned the phone so she could see its tiny screen.
It hadn’t been a text he’d been reading. It was a photo. Gwen had to lean forward and squint in order to make out the detail, but the coffee shop they’d met at was unmistakable. Someone had taken a picture through the window, at the time Arthur had returned with a second cappuccino for her. His broad hand rested possessively on the back of her chair, its mate on the table, caging her in. She could still remember the scent of the coffee mingling with his aftershave, the way the sunlight had glinted through the glass and made his hair seem even blonder. She’d smiled up at him in gratitude.
That was the moment the photographer had caught.
“That was fast,” she murmured, still stunned.
“Merlin found it on some blog he tracks for me. It came out this afternoon.”
“So how does he know your father saw it?”
With a sigh, Arthur slipped the phone back into his pocket. “Because after he realized we were already on the net, he called Gaius. One of Father’s consultants. He and Merlin are good friends.”
Her head was awhirl. This meeting had been inevitable ever since she’d agreed to the fake marriage, and getting media attention was exactly what she’d hoped to do, but…so soon? Tonight was supposed to be about getting to know Arthur better, as well as beginning the public charade. Gwen wasn’t sure she was prepared to take it all on in one evening.
“It’s probably nothing,” Arthur said.
“And if you leave now, you’re not likely to see him at all,” Gwaine added. “That’s why Merlin sent me down here.”
Though Gwen nodded, she didn’t move. Merlin had been looking out for her. He knew Uther far better than she did, and had a more objective opinion than Arthur. Uther had been at the top of Merlin’s warnings when they’d discussed whether or not she’d even meet with Arthur. If he wanted her to get out and avoid this confrontation, there had to be a reason.
But running solved nothing.
“I have to do this sooner or later anyway,” she said. “We might as well get it over with.”
While Arthur beamed at her in approval, Gwaine shook his head. “The old man doesn’t take surprises well. Merlin thinks—”
“Merlin’s not the one marrying Arthur.” Though her stomach was in knots about the meeting to come, she returned Arthur’s smile. They were in this together. In spite of his flaws, she knew he wanted this to work as much as she did. If he thought they should stay, she would trust his decision. “Anything you want me to know before he arrives?”
Arthur debated leaving with Gwaine. He really did. The date had been going too well to spoil it now, and as much as Gwen kept surprising him with her steely resolve to face this head-on, she deserved better than having their night end on a sour note.
But the way she met his eyes kept him seated. The initial shock at how quickly the paps had latched onto her was gone, replaced by a quiet knowing he was coming to associate with her. She looked like an angel tonight, and yesterday, she might have appeared the uncaring hipster, but there was a lot more beneath the surface than he’d expected. He’d respect her choice to stick it out.
“You better leave,” he said to Gwaine. “This needs to look authentic when Father arrives.”
Thankfully, Gwaine didn’t protest. “It’s your wedding, mate,” he said as he rose. “Anything you want me to pass on to Merlin?”
“From both of us,” Gwen added.
Gwaine nodded. “Don’t do anything I might do.”
“You didn’t answer my question,” Gwen said once they were alone.
“About what you need to know?” He shook his head. “Nothing that might actually make all of this moot, I’m afraid. Just be yourself. He’ll respect you more in the long run then.”
The long run might only be a year, but in the framework of this one night, it equated to an eternity.
“How long are we going to wait for him to show?”
The doors opened. Arthur looked at them automatically, on the alert even before he saw the familiar lean frame. “We don’t. He’s here.”
Uther Pendragon stood at the hostess’s desk, and though the unknowing passerby might think he ignored the occupants behind her, Arthur knew that to be untrue. Being astute without seeming to be was Uther’s strength. Yes, he had his blind spots—Arthur’s half-sister, for instance—but for the most part, one didn’t fool Uther easily.
Gaius stood with him. So that’s how he knew where we’d be. Though Gaius’s loyalties were always to Uther—too much history had transpired between them for them to lie anywhere else—Gaius had also supported Arthur’s independence from the time he was old enough to assert it. He didn’t agree with Uther’s unreasonable demands, but sharing information with Merlin was as far as he would be able to go.
As the hostess led Uther to a table, Arthur pretended to look up and catch his eye. “Father!” he exclaimed, sliding from his seat to approach. His bemused smile wore heavily, but he kept it in place, just as Uther put on his when they came face to face. “What are you doing here? Where’s Katrina?”
“She’s at home. Gaius and I were working late, but I needed a break and thought, I haven’t been to Medlar in weeks.”
“You’ve been missing out, then. The chef’s in fine form tonight.”
“Good to hear.” He looked past Arthur to zero right in on Gwen. The time for banal chitchat was clearly over. “On a date?”
“Yes.” Stepping back to include Gwen, he rested a hand on her chair and gestured between them. “Father, this is Gwen DeGrance. Gwen, my father, Uther Pendragon.”
When she stood to shake Uther’s hand, Arthur dropped his own to the small of her back. He hoped she took it as the sign of support he meant it to be, though as his fingertips grazed across her waist, a thread of possessiveness curled within his gut.
“What a pleasure,” Gwen said, her smile wide. It even looked genuine. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you, Mr. Pendragon.”
“That can’t be because of what my son has told you about me.”
She laughed, even as Arthur stiffened at the slight admonishment in Uther’s tone. “Oh, no, I don’t hold that against you.” With the introduction out of the way, she turned into Arthur’s body, her slim hand resting on his chest. It mirrored the ownership Arthur had taken of her, solidifying whose side she was really on. That’s my girl. “But you’re still Arthur’s father, so why wouldn’t I want to meet you? You’re a big part of the man he is. That’s enough for me.”
Her answer threw Uther for a moment, caught as it was somewhere between obsequious and playful, but he recovered swiftly. “I wish I could say the same.” The baleful glance he shot to Arthur was pure put-on. Did Gwen see that? “It appears my son hasn’t kept me as well-informed about his life as he has you.”
“We can remedy that. Would you like to join us for dessert? We were just about to order.”
The invitation startled Arthur. Keeping it casual and away from the table forced Uther to be polite. He’d never make a scene that might reflect badly on him. But sitting with them…any number of things could get said. He could wear the face the public expected him to and still cut Gwen down to slivers.
“I’d be delighted,” Uther replied before either Gaius or Arthur could voice a protest. He nodded at the hostess who had been hovering nearby. A waiter appeared from nowhere to slide the nearest table over to join theirs.
Rather than resuming his chair opposite, Arthur took the seat next to Gwen, ready to intervene if things got too out of hand. Out of sight beneath the table, he squeezed her knee in assurance.
“DeGrance,” Uther mused. “I don’t know that name.”
“No, you probably wouldn’t,” Gwen said. “My father doesn’t live in London, and I’ve only moved back recently.”
“Oh? From where?”
“France. For work.”
“And your father?”
Gaius choked on the water he’d been sipping, while Arthur struggled not to whip his head around and stare at her like she’d gone mad. Which she clearly was, if she thought stating her father’s circumstances so baldly was anything approaching a good idea.
Uther had the grace to only frown. “Pardon?”
“It shouldn’t be for long,” Gwen went on, as if she hadn’t just claimed to be the daughter of a criminal. “If all goes well, the charges against him should be dropped soon.”
“What exactly did he do?”
“Nothing,” Arthur leapt in. He had to somehow save this. “Gwen’s right. This should all go away very soon.”
Uther’s hard eyes lasered in on Arthur. With only a look, he could still make Arthur feel like he was seven years old and caught playing with one of Uther’s antique swords. “So you know about this.”
“Of course, I do.”
“And you’re seeing this girl anyway?”
“This girl has a name, Father. Please use it.”
“Really, Arthur. I thought you were smarter than this.”
“He’s smarter than you seem to be giving him credit for,” Gwen said.
Uther’s smile was pure indulgence. “And you think you’re in a viable position to make such an estimation? I don’t think so.”
“Don’t, Gaius.” Arthur appreciated the help, but it wouldn’t do any good in the long run. “Father’s entitled to his opinion. As ill informed it might be.”
“My opinion has nothing to do with this,” Uther said. “Your involvement is a matter of public record. That makes it a matter of my concern. Everything you do reflects on this family, Arthur.”
“I’m not dating Gwen’s father.”
“And you won’t be dating Gwen.”
Gwen frowned. “No offense, Mr. Pendragon, but Arthur’s not some child you can simply order around. He’s a grown man with his own life. He can make his own choices.”
Uther gave her only a cursory, condescending glance. “And that sort of narrow-minded thinking is exactly why this needs to stop.”
“Because I think you’re acting like a bully?” Gwen snapped.
Her voice carried farther than he was sure she intended. Several people at nearby tables deliberately cast their attention away, but their hushed tones made it clear they were still listening. Arthur could see tomorrow’s headline already. Pendragon gets bullied…by own father.
“I don’t have to sit here and be treated this way.”
When Uther began to rise, Gwen snorted and shook her head. “You expect Arthur, the man you’ve professed time and time again will make a worthy successor when you’re ready to step down, to simply hold his tongue when you attack him. How do you reconcile the two, Mr. Pendragon? How can he be strong enough to lead your company if he’s not strong enough to tell you when you’re wrong?”
“I’m not wrong.”
“Because you say so?”
“Because the facts speak for themselves.”
“The only fact you have is that my father is in police custody. You know nothing about what he’s done, or what he hasn’t done.”
“That’s more than sufficient.”
“You wouldn’t say that if this was a business deal. That’s not how you work. That’s not how you’ve found the success you’ve had.”
“And how exactly would you know that?”
She lifted her chin in bold defiance. “Because unlike you, I did my research.”
Though he itched to jump in, Arthur held his tongue. Fire flashed in Gwen’s eyes, the same heat he’d been witness to the day before. People so rarely stood up to Uther that it was almost a joy to behold. He wasn’t sure when she’d done this research she claimed—it certainly hadn’t been before their meeting or else she would’ve recognized him—but she was dead on about Uther’s business practices. Uther could stammer and protest as much as he wanted, but if this dragged out much more, he was fairly sure Gwen would find stats of some sort to throw back in his face.
“You must have been very nervous about how you’d be received,” Uther said, an icy smile firmly in place. “I don’t believe Arthur’s previous girlfriends would have gone to such lengths. Of course, they wouldn’t have to.”
“I can’t speak for Arthur’s old girlfriends, but when something is important to me, I don’t treat it lightly.” She leaned forward, creating a false air of intimacy that made Arthur want to drag her back before Uther lashed out again. “Arthur loves you. Anyone with a functioning brain cell can see that. Learning what I can about the man he admires so much isn’t going to ridiculous lengths. It’s showing him I respect his opinions.”
“Or that you don’t trust them and need to formulate your own.”
Gwen sighed. “You wouldn’t even care if I told you everything he said to me about you turned out to be true.”
“Considering how this meeting has gone, I can’t believe you actually mean that as a compliment.”
Any pretense that this had been an accidental run-in was gone. Reaching for Gwen’s hand, Arthur tugged her back and to her feet to stand with him behind their chairs. “And on that unfortunate note, we’ll say good night. Gaius, if you still have any appetite left, try the creme brulee. It’s excellent.”
He ignored Uther and snatched up Gwen’s shawl as he led her to the front of the restaurant. He paused only long enough to give the hostess his credit card information to cover the bill, ensuring whatever Uther ended up ordering was paid for as well. At the very least, Uther wouldn’t be able to argue Arthur was less than gracious with his exit.
Gwen remained silent until they stood on the pavement. Then, she touched his arm to drag his attention away from his attempts to hail a taxi.
The apology wasn’t just in her words. It was in her voice, her eyes, the careful curl of her fingers. Arthur covered her hand with his and squeezed.
“Don’t be. He acted like an ass.” Living up to Arthur’s poor expectations. “I’m sorry he treated you that way.”
“I don’t care about that. He shouldn’t have—”
His quiet declaration shut her up again, though he could see her thoughts whirling around behind her eyes. Was he getting better at reading her, or was she really that expressive? He suspected the latter, and this was the first time he hadn’t been so self-involved not to realize it. Keeping secrets would always be difficult for her, though she’d do everything in her power to try.
On impulse, he bent and brushed a kiss across her cheek. Her soft gasp feathered across his skin the moment they touched, encouraging him to linger, but when he tried to do the right thing and pull away, she curled her free arm around his neck and pressed close.
From the way her breath hitched, he thought she was going to say something, anything to explain the tight embrace. But Gwen remained mute, muscles still, simply holding him like there was nowhere else she’d rather be. His arms were trapped between their bodies, making it impossible to return the hug the way he wanted, but bending his head to bury his face into the sensual curve of her neck satisifed at least some of his need for more of her.
He forgot the traffic whizzing by, the restaurant behind them. Uther’s callous words faded into the oblivion they deserved. The heat of her body, flushed and soft in all the right places, wrapped everywhere around Arthur, including those parts where she didn’t touch at all. How long it lasted was lost, though he knew realistically it had to have been only a few seconds. He also knew it wasn’t nearly long enough.
“Is it all ruined now?” he said when they finally let each other go.
Gwen blinked. “Is what ruined?”
“Oh. Well, not if you don’t want it to be.”
What he wanted was to make it up to her somehow. His brain already churned over ideas, but those were grander than what she’d allow in this moment. “I don’t want it to be over,” he admitted, almost afraid of how she’d respond.
Her sumptuous mouth tipped into a smile. “Then let’s not end it.”
That was the best thing he’d heard all night.